The Assembly Government are investing record amounts in the NHS in Wales and are delivering real improvements in the standard of service to patients. Waiting times for Welsh patients in English hospitals are falling.
I am grateful to the Minister for that optimistic response. The Royal Shrewsbury hospital supplies tremendous service to Welsh patients, especially those from mid-Wales, but why do Welsh patients have to wait 29 per cent. longer than English patients for routine elective operations and 39 per cent. longer for a first out-patient appointment?
The facts are that there are no Welsh patients waiting more than eight months for treatment in hospitals, including the Royal Shrewsbury, compared with 900 a year ago, and in the past three years the number of Welsh patients waiting for more than six months for a first appointment at an English hospital has fallen by 61 per cent. Those are significant improvements. Yes, further improvements can be made, but the Welsh Assembly Government will spend £5.5 billion on the health service in Wales next year, amounting to £1,800 per person, something that could not be achieved by the hon. Gentleman’s policy of sharing tax cuts with public service investment. That would mean a £21 billion cut.
Much progress has been made in reducing waiting times for patients from Wales attending hospitals in England. In Wrexham, visits to the Countess of Chester and Gobowen hospitals have much shorter waiting times. I suggest, however, that there be close discussions with the new Welsh Health Minister on that issue and on cross-border funding issues. I suggest that my hon. Friend also discuss the matter with the new Assembly Member for Wrexham, Lesley Griffiths. I may have omitted to mention the fact that Wrexham was a Labour gain—
Indeed. I congratulate Lesley Griffiths on her recent success. My hon. Friend is right that the investment in the health service in Wales is delivering real improvements and waiting times are falling. Local health boards in Wales need to talk to hospitals in England about local packages of care, but given the money that is now going into the health service in Wales, finance should not be a problem.
The Minister mentions that the target waiting time for elective surgery is eight months. In fact, as I am sure he will agree, that is the target waiting time for in-patient treatment. The combined target waiting time for Welsh patients is a total of 68 weeks, whereas for English patients it is 31 weeks. Can the Minister explain why Welsh patients—who after all pay their taxes at the same rates as English patients—should be expected to wait in pain for an additional 37 weeks? Is that a policy decision by the Welsh Assembly Government, or is it incompetence?
As I said earlier, no Welsh patient is waiting for care in an English hospital for more than 12 months, compared with 900 last year. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman look back at the figures for 1996-97, which were substantially higher than those for last year. No patient in Wales waits longer than eight months for in-patient care, which means that many of them actually receive care long before the eight-month target time.